Interview of Kerry McElroy’s Interview Series “A Light in the Mineshaft: An Interview Series With Society’s Traumaworkers”
Sharon Gubbay Helfer is a professional oral historian, independent researcher and certifie workshop facilitator with the Compassionate Listening Project (CLP) and with Compassionate Integrity Training (CIT). She has offered CLP and CIT workshops t participants in the US, Canada, Europe, and Israel. She is an Affiliate Professor with the Institute of Canadian Jewish Studies and a core member at the Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS), both at Concordia University in Montreal. After completing her doctorate in Jewish studies in 2006, she was awarded a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship to carry out “An oral history of pioneers of interreligious and intercultural dialogue in Quebec” in association with Dr. Patrice Brodeur, Canada Research Chair in Islam, Globalization and Pluralism at the Université de Montréal. Her second postdoctoral research project was a “Palestinian Canadian Life Stories” pilot project and website, where she worked withcurators at Concordia’s Centre for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence. Gubbay Helfer also worked as Research Associate on Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling project “Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by Wars, Genocides and Other Human Rights Violations.” Her ongoing life-story interview project “Rabbis and Imams in 21st century Montreal: their paths to the present, towards a shared future” was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Kerry McElroy is a Contributing Editor to Narrative Paths Journal. She is a feminist cultural historian and writer holding a doctorate in Humanities from Concordia University, Montréal. Her thesis entitled Class Acts: A Socio-Cultural History of Women, Labour, and Migration in Hollywood, focused on women in performance systems. She has published articles on cinema, women, history, culture, and politics in Irish America, The Independent, and Montréal Serai, among other magazines. She holds master’s degrees from Columbia and Carnegie Mellon Universities.
KLM: So, first of all, would you like to introduce yourself?
SGH: Sure. Well, I can tell you my name. Sharon Helfer. And if you want to know anything more, you’re going to have to ask me.
KLM: Well, that’s a good start!
So today we’re going to be talking about different types of work in trauma. How it can intersect with our own personal ideas of trauma– from the artistic, to the creative, to that of the practitioner. Different techniques and methods that you’ve encountered in various aspects of your life, in thinking through questions of trauma. And also, what you would consider trauma in the first place.
So it’s a kind of far reaching conversation, and we can go in many different directions. But if, from very first principles, you could say a bit about your own identity– either working in oral history, as an artist, if you want to say anything about personal trauma– and the intersection of these things. So a general overview of the work you’ve done in relation to some of the themes of this interview series?
SGH: Sure. So I think that the only way I really want to do this is… starting with the very personal.
SGH: This question of trauma maybe has been with me practically my whole life– without my calling it trauma, or knowing that. And sort of step-by-step, over the years and over the decades, it’s almost like I’ve been climbing out of a deep well, up towards the light.
So the first step is something that I will never know. Whether there was a shock trauma– an incident of probably sexual abuse of some sort.
Certainly growing up, I didn’t have that memory. What I had was something strange. Which was that this would happen: I couldn’t go to sleep. And my mother would come and talk to me and say: oh, why don’t you think about what you’re going to wear tomorrow? A little kid in school.
But what would happen would be, I would imagine what I was going to wear tomorrow. How old could I have been? Like eight years old.
So there was what I was going to wear tomorrow. And then there was going to be another tomorrow after that, and another tomorrow after that. And I felt like a certain inevitability that this was going to end in my death. That if one day followed another, I was going to die.
And this terrified me, it absolutely terrified me. And I would say: I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die! I cried for hours, and hours, and hours as a child. And my parents didn’t know what to do with me.
And one day my father, who was a doctor, sat down with me and said: you know, you are going to die. Everybody dies. And somehow, in the moment, his honesty calmed me down. But it didn’t last.
And this went on through… forever! I would wake up in the middle of the night. With this panic. Like absolute, rigid panic. About this inevitable conclusion of things. That I was totally powerless to do anything about.
KLM: And would you– in childhood, adolescence, even young adulthood, let’s say– would you sort of hide this from people? Like learned to compartmentalize it a bit?
SGH: Well, I don’t think I would put it like that. Like in the middle of the night, there wasn’t really anybody there.
SGH: And then when there eventually was. My first boyfriend witnessed some of my panic states. Or without my calling it a panic state, this nameless thing that happened to me. And it was awful.
But even certainly beyond young adulthood and even into my marriage, I would wake up like that. I didn’t hide it. But, who are you going to go talk to about it?
So, when our third son was going to be born, there was a midwife in training across the street.
What happened along the way was, that midwife referred me to a homoeopathist. And the homeopathist hooked me up to a machine, and she looked at what she was seeing and not seeing in her readout. And she just exploded: you can’t have a baby like this! You go, go to get some therapy! You are blocked, blocked, blocked!
Okay! So then, with this therapist, through dreams. I got certain images that were pretty graphic. Without going into them in detail, I didn’t even realize what I was saying. But then she reflected back to me. And so, oh my goodness. It’s something that actually happened, with that [abuse].
And then later I got a kind of flash of: “I’ll kill you if you tell”. Which, as I understand, is pretty common in that situation. I didn’t know that. But in any case, if there was an “I’ll kill you if you tell”, it would go a long way to explaining the constant “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die”!.
SGH: And I have to say that my early relationships were kind of– I wouldn’t say they were dysfunctional, but they were more in the father figure kind of domain rather than someone more suitable. And this would have been a father figure person, which might also explain my reaching for that kind of relationship in a strange sort of way.
So, then I was kind of dealing with that, but I don’t think anything really significant happened. I was a very happy mother. I loved having children.
I’m not going to tell you my whole life, but let’s just sort of follow the trail of breadcrumbs. What happened next?
KLM: Well, you said in our pre-interview that the next thread of dealing with personal mixed with familial or generational trauma revolved around your background.
SGH: Yes. I guess there’s kind of a piece that has to do with my Judaism, or me being Jewish.
So I’m the oldest of three girls. And I have this exotic Jewish background: my father from Calcutta, from Baghdad, and Calcutta. And then my mother from Alexandria, Georgia, Turkey. But then settling in Canada, in Montréal, and raising a family.
And they, both of them for their own reasons, had kind of moved on. They both kind of felt like religion was not the way of the future, and they wanted to be modern people, and give their children an open playing field, and so on.
So we had the minimum, but we had it. We had Passover. And then my little sister insisted on doing Shabbat at one point, so that came into our home, and Hannukah. But we were sent to the Reform synagogue as a kind of duty thing. At least for me, it was a double message. My parents never went there.
But in any case, it was just not a preoccupation of mine until… well, another step. Which was that I had gone back to school. I was doing a master’s in comparative education. I had been in Papua New Guinea for a year.
So then one day we got a class because it was late seventies. The Parti Québécois had won an election and lost a referendum, and there was a huge interest in minorities. There was funding for investigating. So, actually I worked on a project, a big project on the education of minorities. I was looking at Jews.
But, we had a prof at that time who brought in somebody. It was actually Jack Jedwab [Canadian academic and author with many works on immigration, multiculturalism, and Canadian Judaism]. And he talked to us about the Jewish communities of Montréal, plural, specifically the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim. And he said: the Sephardic community is a very educated and cultured one, and I said: whoa! Maybe there is a place for me in this world of Jews. Just like an expanse, like a big gate of history opened, and I was in it.
So, that led me to switch from Papua New Guinea as my focus for a master’s thesis. Why can’t I find something in my own backyard? Why can’t I look into the Jewish world?
So I did a master’s thesis focusing on the Jewish Public Library in Montréal, which was not at all a Sephardic institution. At all. But nonetheless, it got me into Jews and Jewish stuff in Montréal.
Inevitably I felt: okay, now I have to go to Israel. What am I doing hanging around Montréal? That’s where I belong, you know? And I did go.
And… what happened?
I thought I was going to get married and have kids. I was at a stage very like: oh, what’s going on around here? I’d better hurry up. So anyway, I was at that stage, and– lucky enough to meet a very fine man who became my husband, a Jew from Sweden, son of a Holocaust survivor, and a German mother whose family all perished but she escaped. A different dimension of Jewish life from mine. He had quite a background, much more than I did. But a complete atheist. He wasn’t really all that interested.
So what happened next, after, we came back to Montréal to live– was that we had these three boys. And, what am I going to give them? What do I have to give them?
So that kind of plunged me back at school to do a second master’s in Jewish studies. I ended up getting funding to do a PhD, so that’s what I did.
KLM: And you wanted to say something about what you called “the shadow”. The shadow of the particular trauma of the Holocaust, that you hadn’t lived but got secondhand, or later.
SGH: Yes, I do want to add this bit, which was this shadow. Because I didn’t know about the Holocaust growing up. It did not impact my parents’ family, or their families.
But little by little– well, I do remember. It was in university in my undergrad. Where we read a play, I think it was The Deputy [Rolf Hochhuth, 1963]? We read a play and, there it was, the Holocaust. What had happened.
And I was alone in the library, and I was reading this all by myself. And I really felt physically ill, and dizzy. It was a shame. It was a shameful thing. If this is what was done to us, what’s wrong with us?
I didn’t really pursue that. In these years, undergraduate, I was more interested in everybody else’s culture. But it remained a kind of a shadow.
KLM: But meanwhile your mother knew all about it, and had tried to sort of shield you from it, deliberately? Is what you understood later? Her life story in those years is fascinating in its own right.
SGH: My mother was in England during the war. What did she say about the war? “It was a lark! We used to run up onto the roof to watch the bombs explode over London”. So talk about denial.
Only gradually I felt like she had kind of an allergy, to Judaism. And when I was young, I would repeatedly challenge her about it. But she would vehemently deny it.
So, with respect to my beloved mother, who is with me every day. She died in 2005. But yes. What she was carrying in terms of… trauma. And her wanting to hide it from us, and saying it was a lark to go up on the roofs.
I do remember, she could not talk about the Holocaust, ever. She said: I can’t bear it.
And, she used the phrase “like sheep to the slaughter”. This idea. Which is an image of the epitome of powerlessness. Which is what happens when a young girl is assaulted… or in lots of cases where there’s no ability to fight back.
It’s not really an accurate image, with all the resistances and the things that different Jews did in Warsaw ghettos and other places. But that was what she had.
And so… it was sort of liberating for me when I put all that stuff together, and realized that that shadow had really hovered over my life.
KLM: Also you told me about your mother’s mentor, Germaine Kanova, who was a prominent and accomplished photographer of that period. And is another piece of this puzzle, and a big piece of your family story. And in fact you work on her today.
SGH: Right. In England during the war, my mother was running this photography studio, for her mentor, Germaine– a very charismatic, unique, amazing French Czech woman. There’s so much myth in her life– I’m writing and researching on her.
Germaine apparently had studied piano with Debussy, and then had some kind of polio thing, and then couldn’t become a concert pianist. So she became a portrait photographer. Germaine had photographed George Bernard Shaw, Collette, you know, all kinds of theater people, and musicians, and intellectuals, and de Gaulle.
She then went to France to be a photographer with the Free French. And she was either the first or the second into a camp called Vaihingen, and she took photos there.
She actually had some kind of journal which lately has come to light. But, it was a big shock to her. And, what I eventually learned from my mother was that Germaine brought these photos back to London. Of the horrors that she had witnessed, and nobody wanted to see them.
Germaine eventually returned to France. She ended up in Cap d’Antibes in the south of France, in a tiny apartment, where I did meet her [in her old age]. And she still was a woman of character.
So where was I in the life path?
KLM: Judaism, I think.
SGH: Right. So that later experience, at the Jewish Public Library in Montréal, when Jack Jedwab talked to us about the Sephardim. And I realized: well, yes, we do have culture, as Jews.
Then I kind of plunged in, then I was in Jewish Studies and it was very enriching.
And I did, through my studies, really, really come to appreciate the richness of all the centuries and millennia of culture, and all the different cultures and the resilience and the humanity in Jewish life and history, you know? So that was a good move. To return to the shadow.
But still, I’ll just say this right here. If a big part of why I went back to study Judaism was to be in a position to deliver an untraumatized story through my body, through my being, through me, to my kids– I do actually now not believe that is possible. You know, I believe that the traumas that we carry are carried and transmitted by some sort of extrasensory perception.
But anyway, even still. Then I came out the other end, with a PhD in Jewish Studies. But, it just sort of seemed to me that this is not exactly the sign I want to have over my door, Jewish Studies.
I felt myself very compelled by dialogue. Without even really knowing what I was really pulled and compelled towards. I realized that loving to talk to people, which I had loved all my life. Like: “tell me the story of your life”. Even at fourteen, fifteen years old, that just seemed natural to me. And then I discovered that was called oral history.
KLM: Right! And that’s how you found me!
[SGH and KLM have both at times been affiliates of COHDS, the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, Concordia University, Montréal.]
SGH: Yes! So I did a first postdoc, at the University of Montréal. An oral history of pioneers of Jewish/Catholic dialogue in Québec. And just this driving desire to understand. If your whole community is telling you: don’t talk– I mean, Québec was Catholics and Jews, those were the ones who were really polarized. And the Jews said: don’t talk to the Catholics, and the Catholics said: don’t talk to the Jews. All this suspicion on either side.
Herb Kelman, that wonderful Harvard researcher, called this existential terror. You just feel like your very existence is at stake. So it’s serious, right? And it’s back to: I’ll kill you if you tell it. You’re going to die! You know? So, why do some people under those circumstances want to go in and get to know the other?
Well, I had a very interesting time there. I had a wonderful time there. I did that postdoc with Patrice Brodeur [a professor at University of Montréal and senior advisor at KAICIID, the International Dialogue Centre, in Vienna].
I ended up being very grateful to Patrice, and very, very grateful for my experience there. I really did end up having a fantastic time, with the people there.
After that— well, we’ll keep on going. Because it’s kind of like I kept wanting to pursue something that I hadn’t found.
SGH: Then at that time, the Center for Oral History at Concordia was just getting started . A beloved institution, to me– part of my heart is there and my identity is there.
But, they were just starting. And generously lending out little cameras, little video cameras, for people who wanted to videotape their oral histories.
And there was an opportunity that came up, for an oral historian to travel around to small Jewish communities in Ontario and record the history of those communities, which followed a pattern of rise and then fall as the children’s generation moved away to Toronto, to university… so, to record the life of this place with different people who were still around. So, the position was as an oral historian.
And I went and borrowed one of the little cameras from the Centre for Oral History, and I practiced and learned how to use it and went on to get that job. And it was fantastic.
So then the, the big mega-project was starting up. It was the Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by Wars, Genocides, and other major human rights violations. It was actually the fifth year of this five-year project.
KLM: And this was, around what year? Approximately?
SGH: Around 2011, 2012? Or ’13, maybe? And so I got a one-year postdoc to work there on that project.
So the work was to process a couple hundred hours of testimony from Rwandans and Cambodians, Haitians, and various other communities, including the Jewish community. The interviews had already been done, by community members. It’s a very, very wonderful process.
I’m just going to say the one thing that I want to say, is Steve High, creator of the Oral History Center, creator of this project, said from the beginning: the ethic here is “shared authority”. We are not going to rip up somebody’s life story out of them and run away with it. We have certain tools. They have this precious content. And our authority is shared. And that ethic ran through that whole space.
So the job was to process these interviews that had been done into a multimedia database called Stories Matter. It involved listening to the interviews, tagging, dividing them into clips, and tagging the clips with certain keywords. Like “childhood”, like “death” or “losing parents”.
With the other communities that I listened to– it was all extremely enriching, to get to hear people’s life experiences under such duress and, just how do people kind of keep on keeping on. And such different ways. But maybe especially with the Rwandans. What is truth? What is reconciliation? What is forgiveness?
These questions. I’m a person who… I just want to understand how everything works! You know? And those questions were really on the table. When, and just realizing, you know, truth and reconciliation. It sounds nice. But if I’m a Rwandan. You know, somebody slaughtered my family, in front of me. And I’m expected to, what, reconcile? Forgive?
So in that project and work just kind of developing a respect for the fact that there’s a human process going on. And it has to go on at its own pace and in its own way, and that cannot be dictated. So I really, really did learn a lot there. Yeah.
KLM: And then once again, you found a way to connect this oral history, and dialogue and reconciliation work, to your own background. But in a way that you described as very scary at first. Can you elaborate there?
SGH: In my quest for dialogues, and difficult dialogues, I was inevitably led to Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. There was a group in Montréal. I became the co-president. The format was to have a co-presidency with a Jewish and a Palestinian person. Also that particular group was very successful until it exploded along the fault line of those two communities. And that certainly led me to say: how much does our group know about dialogue? This happened. And how much do I know? And that led me to the Compassionate Listening Project.
At the Oral History Center, I had sat on the board with some Palestinians and we could order tea and arrange speakers and do things. But being in that context at the Oral History Center, I’m saying instead: how much do I really know? About these people, their life stories?
So I decided to make the creative aspect to my postdoc a Palestinian-Canadian Life Stories pilot project. Yet having not so long ago come out of Jewish Studies, and knowing the sensitivities in the Jewish community, I thought: oh my God, I really want to do this, but I’m kind of terrified. I just– I don’t want to do it to make a statement. I just never was that kind of political person. I just wanted to do it because I wanted to know. I want to meet these people in some kind of depth. I thought: oh my God, what’s my community going to say to me?
But in any case, I went ahead and did– it was just five people. It was a much more rewarding experience then I had imagined, and it was a much more challenging experience than I had imagined. And in the end, no one from the Jewish community said anything to me about the choice. But I came, through it, to be just ever-aware of the fault lines within myself. Of fear, and mistrust.
KLM: So is that maybe a good moment to say a little bit about any times you would have thought through questions of secondary trauma? Or you would have gone home and had a really draining day of listening to these stories, or absorbing these stories, or connecting them with your own ideas of cultural trauma or generational trauma. And how did you handle that if that ever happened?
SGH: It didn’t happen. I mean, the triggering parts were in some interviews with Palestinians. Like I was saying: how was it after 9/11? Did you encounter people saying nasty things? And I got: it was the Jews that were behind 9/11. It was the Israelis. That stuff.
But who knows? Well, I mean, who knows what is triggered within me when I am, as it were, triggered? If I had had no trauma in my background, would I have just been much more evenly tempered when someone said something like that? Well, yeah, I guess.
KLM: Well, and if we were all blank slates, and we had no concerns– we’d receive everything in a Buddha-like, beatific way. But we are not.SGH: We are not!
And that’s another part that I do want to get to. The next kind of big and most recent and ongoing part, for me.
It was a couple years ago, before the pandemic, that I first became aware of a thing called the Collective Trauma Online Summit, with Thomas Hübl. I had never heard of him.
[“Thomas Hübl is a renowned teacher, and author of Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds. Since 2002, he has led dialogue and restoration processes around collective trauma with more than 100,000 people worldwide.”]
But again, I was like: whoa! What is this? I want to know.
And this summit was in the format of a whole lineup of interviewees with things to say about trauma. And so, in a nutshell, I was really taken with many of the interviewees, and especially with Thomas Hübl. Who I found and still find has a perspective that really resonates with me, and I can definitely say more about that.
And then kind of in the same time span of the past number of years, the whole input of neuroscience into trauma studies.
SGH: And, how does our nervous system work? And what does it do with trauma? You know, it just became something that everybody was talking about, but it had not been there a decade ago in my awareness.
SGH: Do you think I should say a word about Father Michael Lapsley and the healing of memories?
KLM: Yes, absolutely.
SGH: Okay. After the explosion of the Montréal dialogue group [between Jews and Palestinians]. I thought: look, something’s wrong with this picture. And that’s when I heard about the Compassionate Listening Project. Had no idea what this was. I don’t know what it is, but I want that.
SGH: So, then I discovered there was a woman called Leah Green, who founded this thing called the Compassionate Listening Project. I brought her from the West Coast, where she lives, on an island off the West Coast. And she came and did a workshop in Montréal. An introduction to Compassionate Listening. And it was very good. Quite a lot of people came, including one of the Rwandan interviewees. And maybe one of his daughters as well.
And I just kind of understood on some level– well, and I saw that with the Rwandans as well. Like at a certain point, your back is to the wall. And you’re full of confusion and rage and hatred. You kind of forgive– to get your life back! It’s not like you want to emulate Jesus or something. It’s you want your life back. And if you’re filled with all that stuff, it’s no way to live!
SGH: These were the lessons that I was kind of learning from life, just witnessing this process.
Of just needing to move on. And there was another guy, another Rwandan guy, who was doing all kinds of reconciliation type work. I think he converted to Judaism.
So I asked him: how did you forgive? And he said: I haven’t. But I am doing everything in my power, to work for understanding and dialogue, so that these things don’t happen again.
So, just to me, these bits of human reality have been very precious gifts to me, as I try to understand things. And now I’ve become a certified Compassionate Listening facilitator myself. I give workshops online.
And there’s not a one formula, clearly. I guess this idea again goes to restorative justice. I don’t know how it came across my path, but– again, just the phrase “restorative justice”. Like: what’s that? That sounds so fascinating. How does that work?
And so then I managed to get involved with the Centre de Services de Justice Réparatrice (Centre for Restorative Justice) inMontréal. It’s the restorative justice outfit that functions in French, there’s another one that functions in English. And that was really, really fun.
The project was to do a series of podcasts. The idea being maybe to bring some of the material out to wider audiences. Part of their work, they have a number of art activities and healing workshops of different kinds.
But they also have this format of taking, let’s say, four women who had been rape victims and bringing them into the prison to meet with four rapists. Not their own rapists, but except in rare occasions when there would be a one-on-one.
And with the facilitators. They go through this process. And it doesn’t work all the time, but it works surprisingly often, that there’s a liberation.
Because if I was raped and supposing that I have the courage to tell my mother. And she says: “Oh, darling, it wasn’t your fault”. That’s nice. But if I meet a rapist and he says: “Listen, it was not your fault”– it’s different.
And so the podcasts were people who have been involved in this process being interviewed. I don’t know what it is exactly, but this territory– I’m so interested in it.
And then that same outfit sponsored a workshop with a priest called Father Michael Lapsley. And it’s called The Healing of Memories Workshop.
At that point I was comfortable including myself in people who have had trauma in their lives. Although, now today, who doesn’t? If it’s personal, if it’s not, all the cultural stuff. But in any case, at that point I felt comfortable applying to be part of this workshop.
So the story there is Father Michael Lapsley was a young priest in New Zealand. And he went out to South Africa and became very involved in the anti-apartheid movement and struggle. So much so that he had to flee. And he ended up in another African country, and just when it was almost over, he was sent a letter, an envelope. And he opened it, and he lost both his hands and one eye. It was a letter bomb.
SGH: So he had to be in hospital for quite a long time. And he struggled with how to absorb this. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. And he ended up finding that certain things were helpful to him.
I don’t remember all of them. I’m sure that presence of loving people, I would be pretty confident saying that was one of them. But also creative activity as a mode of expression. Ways of putting out there something that is difficult to put out, with words. But if you can draw it and then point to it. So that’s what we did. So in the workshop, he collected and collated the things that he had found helpful.
And they had their Truth and Reconciliation Commission [in South Africa].
But what Father Lapsley said was: the whole– everybody was traumatized by apartheid, not just the people on that list. And so, the whole country had to heal no matter which side of divide you were on.
So this was his work to go around and have these workshops and make opportunities for healing. And then he kind of discovered, well, wow. It’s not only in South Africa that memories need to be healed. That this is applicable in lots of contexts around the world. So that is how he came to be in touch with the restorative justice people in Montréal, and came to give a workshop there.
I attended and it was a very interesting process. Consisting of a number of different steps over a couple of days. Different kinds of… working with clay, doing skits.
But the maybe most intense part was when you were in a small group with a facilitator, maybe four or five people. And we each had to draw our trauma. And we had quite some time, I remember, to do that. And then in a small facilitated group, we each took turns pointing to things and saying: this is what this is and this is what that is.
And the group is there– this kind of loving presence or accepting presence. And you are safe to be who you are. So, there were plenty of tears and it was powerful. It was. Both as the speaker and as the receiver.
KLM: Right. I think that’s a good time to, for me to just pull together one observation I’m making– that there seems to be a common thread in a lot of these stories. Your stories on your journey of accepting and exploring your own trauma and linking the personal, the scholarly, the professional.
Because we started out talking about you, and how you weave in with these various groups. You’re compelled to join these groups, or drawn to the message of these people because they’ve also gone through these sort of awakenings.
And one thing that strikes me with it, especially in the context of the rest of my project with this interview series, is that these are not people who are drawn to work on other people’s trauma as healers. These are people who have been through their own trauma and rather than become bitter or become isolated, they’re trying to find a way to take their trauma and work it towards the greater good, or towards the community. That seems to be a commonality here, right?
Because I’m interviewing a lot of people in this series who– it’s not their own trauma. They’re maybe compelled to think about their own family history, but they haven’t experienced it.
Or– two days ago, I did a fascinating interview with a man who goes undercover as an animal abuse investigator. Factory farming and slaughterhouses.
He started as a police officer. And a hunter! And he had an awakening and became a vegan activist. And so his trajectory, absolutely fascinating. You know– we both love oral history. It’s a case where you just want to say: tell me more. I want to know all about your life. You’re like a movie character! Right?
KLM: But his compassion will always be an other. Towards animals. Or your husband as the son of Holocaust survivors. It’s someone else’s trauma, but it’s very next to him.
But it’s a different thing when somebody takes their own trauma, literally, let’s say their hands blown off. Or their family slaughtered. And they make the conscious choice to take part in groups, take part in dialogue, teach people about it.
KLM: That’s a real act of, we could say, bravery. Compassion. You could say all sorts of things. Integrity.
SGH: And you could also say getting a life for yourself, and then passing it on. Right?
KLM: True. So I think… it’s not that one is more valuable than the other at all, but it’s just — seeing a trauma, seeing traumatized people in the world and thinking I should help them is very different than when those people are your family, or your roots, or yourself!
SGH: Or yourself. Right.
I want to say something more about Thomas Hübl, because that would be the last piece I would like to say something about.
KLM: Yes, go ahead.
SGH: So, briefly. Thomas Hübl, Austrian-born. And he does tell the story of growing up and his grandfather’s silences, and the sense that there were things that weren’t being said. And that maybe it was an early presence and question in his own life.
Eventually he decided to become a doctor. He went to study medicine. At a point for some reason, he felt the need to step back, and just think about things. He didn’t know really anything about meditation formally. But four years later, he had really spent four years, seriously learning different meditation techniques, and really delving into the inner exploration of different mystical traditions.
So unlike anybody I’ve ever encountered, he met this mystical information as a scientist that he is, as a doctor. I guess that mystical thing as stuff that happens in your body. And so he came back as The Mystic in the Marketplace and started doing workshops.
He ended up marrying a Jewish Israeli woman and artist and living in Israel. I know that they have done a lot of work in Europe, with Jews and descendants of Nazis or Germans or Austrians. They’ve really plunged into that work, and through that work, the presence of inherited trauma just made itself evident.
So I took one four-month online course with him called Principles of Conscious Healing. And then another six-month online course called Principles of Collective Trauma Healing.
His insistence on holding a space where everybody is included is something I really believe in. There is so much polarization and there is so much sense among so many different groups that they know that they are right. Somehow it just seems to me that the way forward has got to include the human maturity that it takes to understand that we are all connected.
I mean, it’s a fact on this little planet– a COVID virus doesn’t know a boundary. Pollution doesn’t know a political boundary. It’s just this web of life, we are all part of it.
And there is the development of what Hübl calls a “we space”.
Who is we? I mean that’s a big question! But it’s got to be all of us. And that is not easy.
It’s just, I really do believe the need to cultivate a kind of self-awareness, body awareness, understanding. Building up those muscles of holding complexity, not needing to separate into black and white.
All those things, to make it possible for us– a real understanding that this is us.
Like the bad stuff. What we carry. I carry bad, too. The bad is not just out there where I can point my finger. It’s not just me, I have the good parts, and they are the bigoted, stupid people.
I’ve got to acknowledge that even if it’s personal and even if it’s not so personal, I’m still part of this humanity. This humanity that contains the violent tendencies, and the incredible love and compassion, all of it.
The last thing I’ll say. In the last workshop we did spend some focus diving through various exercises into our own– like, what world were your ancestors and parents formed by? Or deformed by.
And this led to a fascinating reflection on my own part about the colonial India that my father grew up in, and was definitely formed and deformed by.
And even to my own growing up in Westmount, Québéc, which also repressed or had this denial about– certainly the Indigenous people whose land it was. And even, as an English language enclave, about the French-Canadian majority.
So, the structural racism that is rising into the public face now, what to do about it? To hold ambiguity is, to me, a way forward.
KLM: And I think, it’s interesting– where you’re leaving off today, which is, I think, very influenced by Hübl’s approach. You’re already at: we’ve processed the negative, we’ve processed the pessimistic to this. And now we’ve got to find the positive in this, and we’ve got to embrace the collective healing and the collective joy.
I think it’ll be nice to put your interview towards the end of the series because it’s a note of hope.
Because my project really started out sitting at the step before, which is a bit more pessimistic.
Saying: until we acknowledge that that other person’s pain is your pain, and your grandparents pain is your pain, and that hurt people hurt people– you will have all this toxicity and kind of poison running through our society that we don’t want to talk about.
KLM: So in other words, the project starts pretty dark in that sense. But maybe the order of the interviews will show that that’s not the end of the story. That can never be the end of the story, or we have no hope.
KLM: I’m just thinking of that now as we’re speaking, this constant tension between optimism and pessimism in the overarching questions of this project.
That came up when I did the interview with Moshe Szyf in epigenetics at McGill. I said: how do you do this work and not feel pessimistic all the time? And he said: well, no, I don’t see it that way. I see it as optimism because if we know what’s in the genes, then we have the ability to help to change it. So it’s all a matter of: how do we?
SGH: Ah! I love your project! It’s awesome!
KLM: Well, I guess I keep the downer parts for me and I bring you people in at the end.
SGH: It’s fascinating. Thank you so much.
KLM: Thank you so much.